Solving Problems using an A3

An “A3” is an international size piece of paper, approximately 11-by-17 inches. Using an A3 is an effective way to present a situation – a story that anyone can understand – all on one page. 

It is a visual tool for problem-solving because it presents all of the main elements in a condensed space, allowing for on-the-spot review. It is a powerful management process encouraging learning through a scientific approach to problem solving. It includes a description of the current conditions, goals, analysis, and an action plan for implementing solutions.

There is no standard format for an A3. Each A3 suits the situation. At the end of this blog, a detailed example is provided that you can use and modify to suit your organization’s situation.

Regardless of format, A3’s answer the same basic questions:

  1. What is the problem or issue?
  2. Who owns the problem?
  3. What is/are the root cause(s) of the problem?
  4. What are some possible countermeasures?
  5. How will you decide which countermeasures to propose?
  6. How will you get agreement from everyone concerned?
  7. What is your implementation plan – who, what, when, where, how?
  8. How will you know if your countermeasures work?
  9. What follow-up issues can you anticipate? What problems may occur during implementation?
  10. How will you capture and share the learning?

The key to using the A3 and, in fact, to any approach in problem solving is defining the problem. As Charles F. Kettering, inventor, said: “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” Too many times, people start “fixing” symptoms of problems rather than the actual problem. This never achieves the desired long-term results.

In its simplest form, a problem is a barrier that prevents the organization from achieving its goals. A problem may also involve the design or performance of work.

The gap between the existing and desired condition is the problem. Achieving performance improvement occurs through understanding of the gap.

At its core, an A3 template helps solve problems by describing the following:

  • Background or context of the problem
  • Current conditions including facts and data about the problem
  • Goal that the organization wishes to achieve in addressing the problem
  • Analysis of the problem to describe why the problem exists
  • Recommendations for how to address the problem
  • Plan for implementing the recommendations
  • Follow-up after implementation to ensure continuous improvement

The A3 is also useful for describing action items – a condensed project charter for each item covering one or two 11-by-17 inch sheets instead of multiple letter-sized typed pages.

Once you start using the A3 format to assess your organization’s problem areas, there’s a good chance that you will never go back to using traditional methods.

Establishing the Need for Improvement: Benchmarking

One of the key requirements of implementing a continuous improvement program is to first establish a need for improvement. You may think this is quite easy, since you already “know” what needs improving. But establishing a need for improving services or products may be harder than you think. If you can’t show the need for improvement in a clear and meaningful way, it will be extremely difficult to get support for making change.

One of the best ways to establish a need for improvement is to benchmark; that is, compare one entity to another for the purpose of improving internal processes. There are four types of benchmarking:

  1. Process benchmarking is about reviewing and comparing process best practices of other companies. For example, the process of issuing building permits – how are other organizations managing this process in comparison to your organization? Are they faster? What is their cost of operations? Are their customers satisfied with the process?
  2. Performance benchmarking relates to reviewing companies that you know are doing a better job than you are overall. When performance benchmarking is undertaken, it is generally undertaken on competitor companies.
  3. Project benchmarking is about evaluating best practices on projects that are similar in scope to your project(s). This can be done with projects both internal and external to your organization. Do your projects generally run over schedule? Over budget? If so, why? What do others do to enable them to stay within schedule and budget? If the Empire State Building was able to be built in 1930 under budget and ahead of schedule, what’s preventing your projects from being equally successful?
  4. Strategic benchmarking relates to observing how other organizations compete. This type of benchmarking is not industry specific and therefore, non-competing organizations are more willing to share their best practices for similar business processes, products or services. In addition, organizations can learn from all operating units within their own organization.

Once you know what type of benchmarking you need to undertake, there are five steps to follow. They are:

  1. Determine your organization’s current practices in your selected problem area and identify your organization’s key performance indicators. This will give you your staring point.
  2. Identify the organization(s) from whom you will be obtaining benchmark data.
  3. Analyze the data that you’ve gathered, comparing your organization’s current practices to the best practices you have observed in other organizations. What are their best practices in this area? In what ways are they better than your organization? Are they faster? What is the cost of the operation? Do they produce a higher quality product/service? How is their customer satisfaction rating in this area?
  4. Model the best practices to fit your organization and present a business case to management for why modeling these best practices is necessary in your own organization. And when approved, implement the change.
  5. Repeat the process. This step is very important, since continuous improvement is not a one-off implementation project. It is a plan-do-check-act cycle that never ceases.

As a management tool, benchmarking cannot be underestimated. It helps you know “how well” your competition or internal units are doing and enables prioritization of change. If your organization does not include benchmarking as part of its continuous improvement mandate, it is likely that your organization is frequently fighting fires and focusing on the present. Instead, use benchmarking to help your organization become and remain profitable by having more time to think about improvements and focus on the future. Leave the firefighting to the fire department..